How do you explain the unexplainable?
"Break It Down" already tackled that mystery once this season, with all the fervor of a David Lynch script, back when Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense were sputtering at the start of the season.
Was Stafford's unorthodox sidearm motion costing him some passes? Sure. Same goes for lapses along the offensive line and a high number of drops from the Detroit pass-catchers. But the conclusions reached from rolling back the tape on the Lions' early games were vague.
The Lions offense had to get better, in theory, because there was nothing obvious holding it back. To that point, Stafford now leads the NFL in yards passing, and Calvin Johnson is tops in yards receiving.
And, in a lot of ways, the situation is the same when looking at today's topic: the baffling difference in Joe Flacco's play in road games compared to at home. In five games this season in front of the Baltimore fans, Flacco is completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,612 yards, 10 TDs, three interceptions and a 108.3 QB rating; in six road games, he's hit his passes at a 55.3 percent clip for 1,238 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, with a 70.2 QB rating.
What is causing the change? This week's "Break It Down" attempts to figure that out ...
Back in Week 6, Flacco and the Ravens beat Dallas, 31-29 in Baltimore. Statistically, it was Flacco's worst home game with 234 yards passing (a number that's still better than five of his six road games). One of the themes we'll keep coming back to, though, is confidence -- and even in an average Flacco day against the Cowboys, we can get a feel for his comfort level at home.
Here's a 3rd-and-15 play late in the first half, with Baltimore backed up inside its own 20. Flacco was in the shotgun flanked by Ray Rice to his right and TE Dennis Pitta left. Pitta flared out as a safety valve option on the play.
The Cowboys helped by only rushing three linemen, then bringing Brandon Carr (No. 39) on a delayed blitz. Still, the pocket pushed back from the line of scrimmage about five yards, to the Baltimore 10. Instead of taking off with the football or checking down to an open Pitta, Flacco slid to his left and gave Boldin time to come open.
Boldin eventually did that, as Jones' deep route cleared any potential help Dallas had in coverage wide. Needing 15 yards on the play, Flacco fired a bullet into Boldin for 20, even though Pitta (white circle) likely could have picked up some positive yardage -- maybe even enough to move the chains.
Now, let's roll ahead to Sunday, when Baltimore rallied past San Diego for a 16-13 overtime win. Flacco finished with 355 yards, easily his best road total this year, but huge chunks of that came in the fourth quarter after the Ravens fell behind 13-3.
Baltimore converted its first third down of the day, with Flacco hitting Pitta for seven on 3rd-and-5. But Baltimore's QB gave up the potential for a much bigger play in the process.
The Ravens ran three receivers deep, then had Torrey Smith break off a deep out route to Flacco's left -- just as Boldin did on that 20-yard completion against Dallas.
The protection: not all that different from the play vs. the Cowboys highlighted earlier. San Diego's defensive linemen managed to get some push upfield, but none had a clear shot at Flacco.
Unlike against the Cowboys, however, Flacco stayed planted in the pocket and utilized that Pitta short route.
That's all well and good -- converting the first down obviously was the goal there, which Flacco did. But had he waited another split-second, he would have had Smith all alone at about the 30, some 10 yards past where Pitta made his reception.
This is only one (relatively successful) play, mind you, but it gets to the heart of the difference between home and road Flacco. In Baltimore, he takes his shots downfield more comfortably -- play calling does have something to do with that -- and allows more time for his receivers' routes to develop.
Away from home, he's much quicker to get rid of the football, opting for the closest available option. Case in point, borrowing some numbers from Pro Football Focus:
• At home, Flacco is 23 for 36 for 397 yards on passes thrown between 10-19 yards downfield; on the road, he's 12 for 34 for 211 at the same distance.
• At home, Flacco has completed 18 of 37 passes thrown deeper than 20 yards for 578 yards; on the road, he's 8 for 32 for 221.
Not only does Flacco look long less often in road games (remember, with regard to those stats, that Baltimore has played five at home and six away in 2012), but he's far less successful when he takes those chances.
Why? Well, Flacco himself talked earlier this year about one difficulty his team has: "Communication is definitely more of an issue when you're playing on the road. There [are] ways that we just have to go about communicating better when we have to."
All teams face that issue in road games, but it's fair to say that Flacco speeds himself up when faced with those situations -- his home swagger often replaced by a jittery road presence.
Here, though, we also have to come back to that confidence issue. Flacco did hit 11 of 16 third-down passes Sunday, turning those into 10 first downs.
So, when he has to come up with big plays, he can. But he still has left plenty of opportunities on the board.
The shot below if from a 3rd-and-long, where Pitta (yellow circle) wound up being the target as he shot deep..
Flacco's protection: Great. Time? Ample.
Pitta was open, too, behind the San Diego defense for what would have been at least a 30- or 40-yard gain, if not a touchdown. But like with Stafford in that earlier "Break It Down," Flacco here just missed badly -- overshooting Pitta by a good 10 yards, for no particular reason other than that he threw a poor ball.
Later, however, Flacco faced a similar situation -- 3rd-and-10 in overtime, with the Ravens in danger of giving San Diego the ball back in great field position.
Baltimore ran a "four verticals" route, sending its three receivers plus Pitta streaking straight up the field, while Rice ducked short as a safety valve. It's similar to the play Flacco hit Pitta on in the game's opening moments. Here, instead of dumping one off to Rice, Flacco shoots one at Boldin (yellow) for 23 yards.
San Diego's pass rush was in about the same spot it was when Flacco checked down to Pitta in the first quarter. This time, as he did on that first play we looked at against Dallas, Flacco moved to find a better spot -- moving to his right, while keeping his eyes downfield.
Boldin needed a couple of seconds to come clear of his defender. When he did, Flacco fired a strike for a key first down.
A cross-sport analogy to try to sort this all out: There are players in baseball with the natural talent to make incredibly difficult plays look simple ... but who get in their heads on routine attempts, leading to errors. This may be, to some extent, what is happening with Flacco.
There are not fundamental differences in how Flacco's O-line plays or who his receivers are in home vs. road games. He still plays less assuredly on the road. His ability to deliver on third downs against San Diego, on the other hand, show what happens when Flacco stops worrying about the crowd or his blocking and simply lets plays happen.
He performed on third downs against the Chargers the way he does on a regular basis at home. When something like that occurs, the obvious culprit is a mental one. So, we've circled the track to wind up back where we started. Joe Flacco is a better quarterback at home than he is on the road. The reason? It might have more to do with Flacco's confidence level than anything we'll find on the tape.